Florida Begins a Probe of GNC’s Practices,
After Complaints of Out-of-Date Products
By JESSE EISINGER Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The Office of the Attorney General of Florida this week opened an investigation into allegations of unfair and deceptive trade practices at General Nutrition Cos., the largest U.S. specialty retailer of vitamins and supplements.
A complaint received by the office accuses GNC, a Pittsburgh-based unit of Dutch company Royal Numico NV, of selling out-of-date vitamins and other products, without properly labeling the products, said Lisa Raleigh, a Florida assistant attorney general. The allegation is that to improve the company’s profits, GNC put products that would ordinarily be written off as expired back onto store shelves, she said, adding: “If that is true, it means it’s a very broad problem for this group.” The identity of the complaining party couldn’t be immediately determined.
Although labeling for food supplements and vitamins is voluntary, once put on the product, they are viewed from a legal perspective as akin to advertising. False statements, such as selling a product that is past its expiration date but without flagging it as such, would be considered a deceptive trade practice under federal and state trade law, Ms. Raleigh said.
A GNC spokesman said it wasn't aware of the investigation but added: "GNC voluntarily dates its products even though it is not required to by law or regulatory structure. As a matter of corporate policy, we do not sell out-of-date products. We make every effort to identify out-of-date product and remove it from the shelves." Numico officials were unavailable to comment.
GNC has been struggling as growth in the U.S. vitamins and supplements market has slowed, reflecting controversies surrounding some nutritional supplements, the slowing world economy and a lack of blockbuster new products. GNC has been embroiled in disputes with some of its own franchisees about how much GNC charged them for products, and recently settled with
three of them. And the company also has faced high staff turnover. Greg Horn, the company’s chief executive, conceded last week that in the past several months, at least 10 mid- and high-level executives have left the company or
been fired. He declined to comment on the dismissals.
Officials for GNC’s parent company, Numico, said last week that GNC has more inventory on its books than it would like. Numico reported a 62% rise in debtors, or accounts receivable, in its first-half results, reported last week. The
company attributed the sharp rise to the fact that it had yet to receive payment from the sale of its drinks and dairy division in the first half.
GNC, which also manufactures vitamins and supplements, operates more than 4,500 stores world-wide. Numico, Europe’s largest baby-food maker, agreed to buy GNC in 1999.